The "tobacco debate" is far from complete. What prompts me to continue this discussion is that the letter appearing in the last Review made reference to several of the common myths and misconceptions about tobacco opposition.
The first myth is that smoking is a highly personal choice. This is only true as an argument in semantics. True, rarely is anyone tied down physically and cigarettes forced into their mouth. On the other hand, it's just as rarely (if ever) an informed choice. Hundreds of studies have shown that peer pressure is the foremost cause of initial tobacco use among teens. In many adolescent environments, teens are almost helpless in the face of this pressure, as resistance (or even mere reluctance) can mean exclusion from the desired clique. In addition, Big Tobacco has spent literally billions over the years on advertising specifically designed to get potential smokers to subconsciously associate smoking with everything from rugged handsomeness to social popularity to getting laid a lot. It doesn't have to make sense - it works in the subconscious, remember? If it didn't work, they would've stopped doing it long ago.
The second - and most damaging - fallacy is that smoking is a solitary vice that affects only the smoker. "It's my body, and I can put anything in it I want." The problem with this argument is that smoking is not a closed physical system. 100% of the smoke does not enter your mouth. A butt continues to smolder whether you draw on it or not, and I have seen smokers light up while chatting, reading, etc. and then only take three or four puffs. The whole rest of the time they're just holding it - during which time all of the products of combustion go directly into the atmosphere that everyone must breathe. Even if we look only at that percentage of the smoke that does get inhaled, only a tiny fraction of the combustion product stays is the mouth, trachea and lungs. The rest is, of course, exhaled back into the atmosphere. Fortunately for the 80-90% of us that choose not to smoke, the portion that remains in the smoker's body has a high ratio of the heavier components: tars, nicotine, etc. But the bottom line is that the smoker does not even inhale all of the poisons contained in a cigarette, and don't retain all of the poisons they do inhale. This is the source of the majority of the opposition to smoking. If you smoked inside a plastic bubble, where all the products of tobacco combustion stayed inside permanently, the rest of us wouldn't care about your habit. But since so much of the health-destroying components in your cigarette end up in the air that the rest of us have no choice but to breathe, we feel we have a legitimate beef. We can't pick and choose which molecules we inhale.
Another area of smoking where "It doesn't hurt anyone else" is a lie is in the area of litter. Look around you as you walk on campus. Fully 80-90% of the solid litter is tobacco-related. There is some sort of bizarre moral contortion that says a dropped kleenex is litter - but a dropped butt isn't. Give me a break! The man-made filter of a cigarette takes years to break down, while a kleenex is pretty much gone with the first rain. And when that filter finally does degrade all the shit trapped inside it ends up causing even more pollution.
The third and most recent myth is that because a few minor procedural flaws have been uncovered in a few of the thousands of studies of second-hand smoke, the whole concept has been rendered valueless. All I need to say about this is that this particular line of reasoning has only worked once - and I doubt that even Johnny Cochrane will try it again.
Finally, we come to the accusation of holier-than-thou-ness on the part of anti-smokers - a common occurrence in these days of backlash. While there are some cases of this, for the most part the charge is, if you'll pardon the pun, a smoke screen. Let me explain it with a somewhat earthy simile. If I get mad at you for pissing in the water downstream from where I'm drinking, I might be accused of being holier-than-thou. But not if you're pissing in the water UPstream from where I'm drinking.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 7, October 30, 1998
Contact us with your comments and suggestions.